One of the most exciting of the occasional services in the Byzantine Rite, and one with which I have fallen in love since having become Orthodox, is the Cross Procession. It is one in which there is much active participation from the laity, in which the gathered people of God raise their hearts and voices to God in prayer, invoking the intercessions of his Saints while making procession around the outside of the church. It is a joyous service, offered in a celebratory spirit.
It is clearly rooted in an incarnational and sacramental understanding of the church building, that it is a physical space, set aside and consecrated to the honour and worship of God. As such, the Cross Procession is customarily performed at the founding of a new church or monastery, and each year upon the church's patronal festival.
I am not sure where exactly the name Cross Procession originates as the Cross does feature heavily in it at different points. Firstly, the procession is headed by a Cross, which makes it stand out as a special event because the people will know from observation that the Cross is not carried during the processions at the Lesser and Great Entrances at the Divine Liturgy, (actually it is, but only when the Patriarch or other Primate/First Hierarch serves - which most people would not have witnessed regularly). Secondly, there are four stations made during the procession, forming a Cross around the outside of the Church. Thirdly, at each station, the priest blesses the people in four directions, again forming a Cross.
The Cross Procession takes one of two forms. The first is also known as the Litya (not to be confused with the Litya inserted into Vespers on the eves of Great Feasts or at Vigil on Saturdays and at other times, as appointed). This is the form that appears in the Trebnik published by the St Tikhon's Seminary Press, which has a note at the beginning saying that it is a remnant of a much grander procession which would take place around the great city of Constantinople during times of crisis. I have only ever seen this form done once. It was at my own parish because at the time we had not been taught how to do these processions so took it directly from the book. In this version, there is a Gospel and a Litany at each of the four stations, and a blessing of the church, town, and people with holy water at the first three, (the fourth litany is of the departed founders, builders, benefactors, and adorners of the church, so is not followed by a blessing of the living); the procession leaves by the west door of the church and proceeds, anti-clockwise, three-quarters of the way around the church before making each station. This way, the people make a total of three circuits of the church.
At each station (with the aforementioned exception), the priest blesses in four directions with holy water - while a second priest, if there is one, stands beside him, blessing alternately with a blessing Cross and the icon of the feast - asking God's mercy on the people, the church, and the local community, as he faces towards each.
The other main form of Cross Procession has quite a different origin to the other, and is the processional Moleben, which is just what it sounds like: the oft-served office of supplication slightly rearranged and done in processional form. As such, this form will be much more familiar to most people. At my parish we were taught how to do this by none other than our First Hierarch himself when he came to visit us last November, so this is the form that we shall use in future. It seems to be very common in the practice of the Russian Church Abroad where the Litya form appears to be generally unknown. That isn't to say that it doesn't happen elsewhere but it seems that we in ROCOR do it at every opportunity because we love it so much. You can a video of one of the stations in this video:
In this much simpler version, only one circuit of the church is made, and only one Gospel is read (taken from the menaion service to the Saint). After the Prayer Below the Ambo during the Divine Liturgy, the servers and other laity, with lantern, Cross, and banners, form up, and the clergy remain before the central icon. The people sing the "O heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth", and then the deacon leads the "God is the Lord, and hath appeard unto us" in the tone of the tropar of the Saint, as at a normal Moleben. However, once the tropar begins, the procession sets off, somebody - often one of the laity - picking up the icon of the patron Saint, draped with a scarf, and joining in the procession. From that point, the clergy and people sing as they go, "Holy (name of Saint), pray to God for us!", alternating with "Glory... Both now", from the Moleben service. At each of the four stations, the senior priest blesses in the four directions. At two of the stations, he blesses with the blessing Cross, invoking the mercy of God. At the other two stations, he blesses with the icon, invoking the prayers of the Saint. Each time, the deacons stand opposite, censing the icon or Cross as the priest blesses, while a second priest (if there is one), simultaneously blesses with holy water.
The people re-enter the church while singing the "It is truly meet", and the procession concludes with a form of the Litany of Fervent Supplication and the concluding prayer (taken from the Akathist to the Saint), then the Liturgy continues. It is a beautiful way for a parish or monastic community to celebrate its patronal festival. If your parish doesn't already do this, why not accost your priest and demand it, or even take him aside and politely suggest it while offering him chocolate? Here is the form that will be used at my parish in future. I leave you a with a video of this service (in a slightly adapted version of the Moleben form) from St Elias' church in Brampton.
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